Where God leads, United Methodists must follow

October 27th, 2016

The United Methodist Church is a movement built for mission, but our path is besieged by fighting and posturing. And get ready because the middle ground is being carved up too. With deeper and deeper entrenchment, soon there will be none left, and if those of us caught betwixt and between dare stand up, we risk being shot by one or both sides.

There is no doubt that there has been patronizing, moralizing, and careless biblical interpretation on all sides. Even as “people called Methodist,” we cannot agree on the tenor of scripture, and this makes our other applications of biblical principles suspect. What is more important: God’s holiness or justice? Human love or free will? The church’s boundaries or an Open Table? For Methodists, these either/or choices are biblically unsound and methodologically indefensible. Let us remember that the Bible is not a weapon; rather the Bible informs, encourages, and witnesses to faith in God. It serves to open us up to God’s Eternal Yes, God’s new creation.

With so many different biblical interpretations, will an appeal to tradition help? Here some say Methodists will have a hard time defending against schism given our history. But divisions reach back to the beginnings of Christianity, which began, as we all know, as a break-away from Judaism. History is not destiny. And neither is biology. While the science of human sexuality is still in its infancy, many people parade their ignorance shouting that they know more about science than scientists.

Then there is experience. And here I’m not talking about individual experiences of our friends, family members, colleagues, pastors, or bishops. I’m talking about our collective experience as a church. Part of the reason we are here is because of our denominational insistence that the primary locus of ministry is the local church. It is not. The locus is where the community of faith is in ministry. But when faced with problems that threaten, we Methodists seem to yield to the simplest solution and tinker with church structure. Sometimes it’s been division; sometimes it’s been unification. But now we are backing into a corner and can’t just reorganize ourselves out of it.

While many argue that the church is being affected by cultural trends, I don’t think we realize how much. Cultural values are in the air we breathe. Humans are always embedded in culture. Consider Jesus, Paul and Wesley. But being part of culture does not mean that we are condemned to be slaves to culture, but neither does it mean that we can remain unaffected. In our current milieu, the divisiveness in our church, not surprisingly, reflects the cultural divisions we see all around us. 

Finally, it is remarkable that theologians have been largely overlooked and underutilized. As a church we accept homosexual persons as members; even the most conservative of us will affirm that God loves all people and will not exclude any believer from God’s kingdom now or in the life to come. We all agree that God’s grace is freely available to all. Likewise, the Communion Table is open to all who earnestly repent and seek a relationship with God. No, the issue isn’t church membership or participation; it is ordination and the sacraments.

This suggests two things. First, as a church we do not deny persons we identity as sinners (all of us) the sacraments of Communion and baptism. Yet, we do deny some people, whom we designate as sinners, rituals of the church that are not sacraments, ordination and marriage. I hardly need to point out that sacraments far and away outrank human-designed rituals. We, as Methodists, understand that Communion is sacred. Communion, like baptism, is a means of grace, a sacrament. Ordination is not. Neither is marriage.

Second, long ago the Church decided that the efficacy of sacraments does not depend on the character or past behavior of the ordained officiant. This was the Donatist heresy. The primary disagreement was over the treatment of those who renounced their faith during the persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian (303-305). What should happen to those who denied their faith out of fear for their lives? And especially, what should the Church do with those who were clergy? The controversy deeply divided the Church and the answer clarified our understanding of the sacraments. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away during the persecution.

By declaring the Donatist refusal as heresy, the church decreed that the person of the priest was irrelevant to God’s presence as orthodoxy. For The United Methodist Church, this suggests that whatever the biological, psychological, or sociological make-up of clergy or lay leadership, God is still present. So if God works through us all and offers relationship with all, who are we to cut ourselves off from those with whom God walks and talks?

Whatever our personal feelings, we are people of our time. But we don’t have to settle for being only that. We can be counter-cultural, which means that we can climb out of our foxholes. There is a familiar story from World War I: It was Christmas Eve. Germans and Allied forces stared at each other across enemy lines, until a single soul, white flag in hand, braved across no-man’s land. It wasn’t long before soldiers were sharing food, candy, gifts, and cigarettes. They sang “Silent Night” and other hymns. Bloodied ground was now holy ground. As the sun rose, the generals were eager to resume the war but neither side would shoot. There were no enemies, only friends.

We must all be willing to venture out on holy ground, the middle ground. How many people have to be shamed, defrocked, bullied, hurt personally and professionally before we call off the war? How much blood has to be spilled before we find ways to befriend our enemy? Each side will have to give. This might mean that clergy will be allowed to do same-sex marriages. It might mean that some ministries might be more effective if led by straight people. It might mean we restructure. It might mean we do nothing. There’s a lot we cannot know. But this is for sure, where God leads we must go, because we are a discipleship movement built for mission.

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